- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 11, 2004

The Washington Capitals — or whoever those guys were out there — played the Buffalo Sabres last night at MCI Center. It was a little confusing, you see, because Mike Grier, who had skated for the Caps against Ottawa earlier in the week, was wearing a Sabres sweater and exchanging passes with Chris Drury and Jochen Hecht.

So it goes for the local hockey team these days. When the Caps faced the Senators, they bumped into Peter Bondra. When they crossed sticks with the Rangers, they met up with Jaromir Jagr. Next month when they journey to Boston, they’ll reunite with Sergei Gonchar and Michael Nylander. For better than a month, until Tuesday’s trading deadline, they’d served as a veritable farm club for the NHL’s Stanley Cup aspirants. For the right price, just about anybody on their roster was available. Take my right wing — please!

Anson Carter, the bounty Jagr brought, was in Washington barely a month before the team dealt him to L.A. for a younger prospect, the as-yet-unsigned Jared Aulin. Yup, you haven’t been able to tell the Caps lately without a scorecard — or a Ouija board. No fewer than eight players were purged in various cost-cutting moves — and a ninth, Calle Johansson, left his scouting job in the organization to temp for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Grier’s head seemed to be still spinning as he suited up for the Sabres. He’s been traded a few times before, of course, but “this is the first time it’s really been in-season,” he said. “Last year I came [to the Caps] right after training camp and basically had the whole season to get to know the guys. This time there’s only a month left, and I’m being brought in for the playoff push.

“It’ll be tough facing my former team in my first game, but it’ll also be good to get it over with and move on. I had some fun [in Washington], and I’m thankful for the opportunity they gave me. Hopefully they can get it going again in a few years with all the draft picks and younger players they’ve got — and veteran leaders like Olie [Kolzig] and [Jeff Halpern].”

That, at least, is Ted Leonsis’ and George McPhee’s plan. Leonsis spent like a drunken sailor the past few years trying to buy a Cup and “learned a costly lesson,” as he put it: “One player does not make a hockey team.” (Especially when that player’s initials are J.J.)

The Caps, it should be pointed out, hardly gave away Jags and the others for a bag of beans. Indeed, they netted five first-round picks and five second-rounders in the transactions. (That is, either players who were drafted in those rounds or the picks themselves.). They now have four players taken in Round 1 of the 2002 draft: their own Steve Eminger and Alexander Semin, plus Jakub Klepsis (for Grier) and Jonas Johansson (for Steve Konowalchuk). If some of these kids can actually play …

Still, such a dismantling of a club is distressing if not disorienting — particularly since, at this time of year, the Caps are usually buyers rather than sellers. There’s almost nobody left to cheer for now (though the June draft, in which the team holds three No.1s, promises to be thrill-filled). Of the players who remain, the leading scorer entering last night’s game was Halpern, with 31 points on 12 goals and 19 assists. Who ever thought they’d see that, except maybe Halpy’s mother?

McPhee looked more dazed than Grier, and understandably so. The past couple of weeks, he said, “it’s like there’s been a trading deadline almost every day. But I personally feel better about the team than I have in a year. Every decision we make heretofore will be in the interest of winning, of trying to win a Cup [instead of just reducing the payroll].”

The thin crowd at MCI last night stood by their hockey club — or what’s left of it. They applauded Kolzig’s futile attempts to keep the score respectable and rooted for Rick Berry and Stephen Peat in their bouts with Brad Brown and Andrew Peters. They didn’t even seem to mind when Grier bagged a goal and two assists, helping Buffalo pile it on in a 6-0 win. It was almost as if he were still a member of the Caps.

“Nobody expected the season to go this way,” McPhee said. “But I would hope most fans, if given the choice, would have done the same thing we did. Our options were to stay put with an expensive team that was underachieving or to get out from under those [big] contracts and prepare for the new hockey universe, whatever it may be. Now we’re as deep with young prospects as any team in the league and have the flexibility to mix in some veterans, hopefully at lower prices than today.”

Best-case scenario: The NHL shuts down for all or most of next season, the Caps’ prospects get to play together in Portland for a year, and then in 2005-06 the club takes its first halting steps on the road to respectability.

The worst-case scenario? An Ice Age reminiscent of the franchise’s expansion days. But let’s not even go there.

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